Collective capabilities as condition for individual human development

Routh, Supriya (2018). 'Collective Capabilities as Condition for Individual Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Amartya Sen’s capability approach is ethically individualistic, meaning thereby that the proper unit of evaluating (expansion or deprivation of) capabilities is at the level of an individual rather than a group, community, family, or state. One of the principal insights of the capability approach is that because of personal variations amongst individuals, well-being of a collective is not a good measure of well-being of each of the members of the collective. In spite of this ethical individualism, Sen’s version of the capability approach does recognize the role of “collective” in evaluating well-being. Sen is nuanced in articulating the relationship between the collective and people’s capability. He distinguishes between collective basis of individual capabilities and collective capabilities in their true sense.

Collective basis of individual capabilities are those situations where an individual’s capability expansion is dependent on her relationship with others, that is, her participation in a group. This collective could be as small as a family or as large as a state. Because an individual is a member of a group, she is able to access resources and opportunities that the group collectively generates. While these resources and opportunities are often generated for all participants of the group thereby benefiting every member, individual capabilities expanded by the collective activity will depend on interpersonal variations of group members. Because of this divergence between collective achievement (in terms of resources and opportunities) and individual capabilities, an individual’s capability expansion should not be subsumed into collective capabilities. 

Truly collective capabilities, on the other hand, are those freedoms that are impossible for an individual to attain – even when an individual is part of a collective. For example, Sen mentions of “collective capability” of a nuclear power to effect en mass destruction; or “collective capability” of one ethnic community to annihilate another; or “collective capability” of humanity to reduce child mortality.[1] While these are all remarkable instances of collective freedom to do what a group values doing, there may be other more mundane instances of collective capability that is beyond an individual’s attainment possibilities. In fact, it is perhaps, arguable that the majority of collective capabilities centrally connected to people’s lives pertain to more mundane aspects than the abovementioned instances, an assertion that I elaborate shortly.

To be sure, each collective capability also goes on to expand an individual’s capability – freedom that such individual values, albeit in an indirect manner. If an individual values “reduction of child mortality” or “restoration of clean environment” – none of which she could be free to achieve individually – individual capability is enhanced only as part of the collective capability to attain these achievements (i.e., functionings). This interrelationship between collective and individual capabilities becomes abundantly clear in the context of collective action amongst non-industrial workers’, which is the context in which I analyze the significance of collective capabilities. 

Unlike trade unionism of industrial employees, non-industrial workers undertake collective action through a variety of organizational forms. Although the nature of these organizations is varied, often they are a combination of trade unions and co-operatives. Other associational structures, including societies and companies, are also constituted as workers’ collective initiatives. These organizations pursue multidimensional functions integrating the government, the market, and civil-society engagement including self-help in furtherance of comprehensive improvement of the lives of their worker-members. Their multidimensional initiatives involve strategic engagement with several institutions in the abovementioned domains (of government, market, and civil society). These organizations negotiate and lobby with the government (and the legislature) for devising welfare schemes and enacting entitlement statutes; they make use of institutions of the market by innovatively organizing their members’ economic activities; they often create their own welfare resources; and they undertake direct political action as representative organizations. Capabilities to employ these multidimensional strategies are normally beyond the scope of any one worker’s possible capability-sets.

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is a prototype of organizations that employs these multidimensional strategies in improving conditions of heterogeneous categories of non-industrial workers. Drawing on the SEWA experience of workers’ collective action, in this paper I will show that it is primarily by means of expansion of collective capabilities that non-industrial workers’ individual capabilities could be expanded. Expansion of collective capabilities do not only address the well-being aspect of freedom (as the capability to restore clean environment should suggest), it also does promote agency-aspect of freedom (as the capability to reduce child mortality might suggest). Thus, the SEWA’s collective action is an instance of collective capabilities that promotes multidimensional human development of workers by simultaneously facilitating their well-being and agency freedoms. While the SEWA might be a prominent one, it is not the only one of such organizations of non-industrial workers of its nature. The research and activist group Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) lists hundreds of organizations that function in a similar manner in order to promote workers’ human development. 

[1] Amartya Sen, “Response to Commentaries”, 37:2 Studies in Comparative International Development (2002) 78 at 85. 

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